Clean drinking water is something we often take for granted. It’s only when water shortages occur that the public turns its attention to the precious resource which so many of us depend upon. But what if you could no longer rely on your tap for clean drinking water?
For millions of Americans across the country, this reality is closer than ever before; for some, it is a reality they're living in now. The growing water crisis is an ominous and silent threat that threatens many of our nation's drinking water sources. The causes are numerous, but the effects can be felt everywhere, from major cities to small towns and rural areas.
Water insecurity in America is growing rapidly, particularly in rural areas. Many communities lack access to safe and reliable water due to aging infrastructure, poor management of local resources, inadequate financing, and the effects of climate change. In America, nearly two million people are affected by water insecurity, and communities like Flint, Michigan, are some of the most visible examples.
What Is Water Insecurity?
Of all the water on Earth, only a meager 3% is freshwater. Only 1.2 percent can be consumed as drinking water; the rest is trapped in glaciers, ice sheets, or permafrost. Drinking water scarcity, or water insecurity, is a global crisis that impacts the lives of millions and puts them at risk of disease and death.
Water insecurity is defined as the lack of access to adequate, safe, and affordable drinking water. This can range from communities dealing with severe droughts to those facing water contamination or shortages due to aging infrastructure and poor management of local resources.
Climate change also increases water insecurity by causing more frequent droughts and floods, which can further disrupt a water system. Factors such as population growth and water pollution exacerbate the problem, making access to clean drinking water even more difficult.
The Impact of Water Insecurity on Communities
The effects of water insecurity can be far-reaching and devastating for those affected. Water insecurities can lead to health issues, including waterborne illnesses caused by contaminated drinking water. In addition, people living in drought-affected areas may struggle to find food and other essential resources due to the lack of access to clean water.
In some communities, the need for clean water is so great that families are forced to pay a high price for it — often more than they can afford — or resort to unsafe sources for their water. This further jeopardizes their health and well-being, as unsafe drinking water can contain contaminants that pose a serious health risk.
Lack of Clean Water and Associated Diseases
Contaminated or unavailable drinking water puts people at risk of infectious diseases, including typhoid fever, cholera, and dysentery. It also increases the risk of malnutrition due to a lack of access to proper sanitation and hygiene. Water insecurity can also lead to economic decline, as businesses must close or scale back production due to water shortages.
In a milestone study, epidemiologists from the CDC revealed that illnesses stemming from waterborne diseases cause an estimated 7.15 million cases of sickness and 6,630 deaths annually in the United States alone.
Diseases like E. coli, campylobacteriosis, and cryptosporidiosis are the most commonly reported waterborne illnesses in the United States — with one in four Americans falling ill each year due to these contaminants. Furthermore, this epidemic costs our healthcare system more than $3.3 billion annually.
The Impacts of Food Supply and Production
Water insecurity can have a devastating impact on food supplies as well. Water shortages and contamination can lead to crop failures, driving up global food prices and reducing access to nutritious foods. Additionally, water is necessary for livestock production — meaning that in areas where there's not enough clean drinking water available, it becomes much more difficult to raise livestock and have a stable food supply.
Water insecurities in other regions of the world are even more dire. In Africa, water scarcity has become a major problem due to deforestation and overpopulation. According to the United Nations, approximately 43 countries suffer from water scarcity, and when it comes to food production, this can have devastating effects.
The prices of American food and beverage imports increased by 11.7 percent, the largest over-the-year increase since 2011. This is largely due to the global food crisis caused by water insecurity, resulting in a shortage of many crops. Food grown with water from contaminated sources can also make people sick, further exacerbating the problem.
The Case of Flint, Michigan
Water insecurity can lead to immediate health risks for communities, with contaminated sources leading to a higher risk of diseases like cholera or dysentery. For example, in Flint, Michigan, the city’s water supply has been contaminated with lead for years, resulting in an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease. This crisis has affected thousands of people and threatens to cause long-term health issues.
A Community Assessment for Public Health Emergency Response (CASPER) conducted by the CDC in May 2016 in Flint, Michigan, uncovered more information on the real long-term consequences of the water crisis in the area. The Flint water crisis has had a devastating effect on the health of its citizens – 51% of households stated that at least one member experienced worsened physical health because of it, and 66% reported an increase in behavioral issues amongst adults.
Why So Many Americans Don't Have Access to Clean Water
The water crisis across the United States is an alarming, largely overlooked issue. Many Americans don't even understand that they are living in an area with potentially contaminated drinking water.
Poor & Outdated Infrastructure
A major cause of this issue is a lack of infrastructure repairs and upgrades funding. According to the EPA, there are currently 6 to 10 million lead service lines nationwide in cities and towns, particularly impacting communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods. Lead service lines are a major source of contamination and lead poisoning.
Recently, Congress passed The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, allocating $50 billion to improve our nation’s water infrastructure. According to the White House, the bill is the "single largest investment in water that the federal government has ever made.” The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law intends to invest money to create clean water solutions for communities, provide safe drinking water by replacing lead lines, and protect regional waters with geographic programs. However, as $50 billion is only 10% of the known need, it may not be enough.
Underinvestment has caused aging pipes and systems to deteriorate continuously, leading to increasingly contaminated drinking water unfit for human consumption or a lack of drinking water altogether. This is especially true in rural areas with limited access to clean drinking water and large cities with outdated infrastructure. To make matters worse, many of the most at-risk communities do not have the resources necessary to upgrade their systems.
Climate Change and Water Insecurity
Climate change is also a major player in the water crisis, as it can cause droughts or floods that can lead to shortages of clean drinking water. This has been most apparent in areas such as California, where drought conditions have led to a decline in groundwater levels and an increase in the salinity levels of surface water. Approximately 34 million people in California have been directly affected by drought, not to mention the detrimental effects on agriculture, wildlife, and the environment.
The combination of climate change, poor infrastructure, and a lack of access to clean drinking water has resulted in millions of Americans living without access to safe and affordable drinking water. As the population continues to grow and the demand for clean water increases, it is essential that immediate action is taken to ensure that all Americans have access to safe and affordable drinking water.
Manufacturer Contamination Risks
Industrial waste is a major pollutant in our waterways and can come from many sources. This includes garbage, oils, chemicals, dirt, concrete fragments, scrap metals, or anything else disposed of during industrial activities. These pollutants have the potential to severely damage not just rivers but also lakes and oceans as well if left unchecked.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, industrial pollutants, such as PFAS, have irrevocably harmed an alarming amount of waterways. To be exact, factory runoff contaminates 145,000 miles of rivers and streams, almost one million acres of lakes and ponds, and over 3,000 square miles of bays and estuaries. This means that drinking water from these sources is highly contaminated, putting millions of Americans at risk for health concerns such as cancer and kidney or liver diseases.
The Future of America's Drinking Water
The growing water crisis is a harsh reality that we must face and take action to address. Fortunately, many organizations are working hard to increase all Americans' access to clean drinking water. This includes the EPA's Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), which provides large-scale funding for infrastructure projects, and smaller initiatives from organizations such as Water.org, which are focused on helping the most vulnerable communities access clean drinking water.
We all must do our part to help ensure that everyone has access to safe and reliable drinking water now and in the future. Simple steps like conserving water and investing in infrastructure projects can help reduce water insecurity and ensure all Americans have access to clean drinking water.